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June 2015
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The Language of Food


Finally, friends, a little report on my magical week in Sicily in early June. Rachel and I were there to teach a week-long writing workshop at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. The school was founded 26 years ago by the Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza, on the grounds of her family's winery, Regaleali. The Marchesa - an accomplished and ambitious cook - endeavored to teach people about the incredible depth of Sicilian cookery, from the rustic (think gallons of puréed, dry-farmed tomatoes drying in the sun to a thick rust-colored paste for days in this very courtyard) to the sublime (like a multi-layered, complex cassata draped with glassy wedges of candied fruit). She ended up collaborating with food world luminaries like James Beard and Jullia Child, and established herself as the authority on Sicilian cooking. Anna's daughter Fabrizia Lanza now runs the school and in addition to the traditional cooking classes also offers things like annual food-styling and photography workshops with Béatrice Peltre and an upcoming illustration and story-telling week with Maira Kalman (!).

After the school's 25th anniversary party last summer, I was beyond honored to be asked to join Rachel in hosting the school's inaugural food writing workshop. We arrived in Sicily a few days before our students did. The Regaleali estate is in the interior of the island, far away from the petrol-colored sea and stunning coastline. The rolling hills there don't look dissimilar to the ones in the Marche, which I know so intimately, but the vegetation was wilder and more Seussian, the light harsher and brighter. Right in front of my bedroom window were two enormous trees populated by a large number of doves and swifts. Each morning, just around 6:00, I'd open the heavy, blue, wooden shutters to the sound of the birds cooing and chirping in the branches, while the wind rustled through the leaves so loudly that it sounded almost like a car coming around the corner. 

One of the many things that is so special about the school is how you immediately feel like you are part of a large family gathering whilst there. This is mostly due to Fabrizia's warmth, ease and generosity. It just all feels so natural. The horseshoe-shaped compound of the school holds not only the kitchen and dining room in which we spent so much time, but the rooms where we slept and where Fabrizia and her family stay when they are there, as well as the living quarters of the school's longtime caretaker and her family. There was enough space for us all to be able to retreat quietly to our rooms when needed, but we were all knitted together as well, right from the beginning.

Just on the other side of the entrance, in the photo above, are the gardens that Anna planted. They are divided by a sloping set of stairs, into the more utilitarian rows of vegetables and a fragrant and active compost pile, and the gloriously appointed decorative garden, punctuated by fruit and nut trees, low bushes of lavender, every kind of herb under the sun and great bushes of oleander, pink and white. Before our students arrived, we spent a couple days familiarizing ourselves with the grounds, getting to know Mario Traina, the school's recently appointed chef - and one of the kindest, funniest human beings I've had the pleasure of knowing - and hashing out the final details of the week's curriculum.


We hoped that the week would give the attendants not only the mental and physical space, but also the inspiration needed to kickstart a writing regime. We started with a visit to Filippo Privitera, a local shepherd who supplies the school as well as local vendors with the most incredible sheep's milk ricotta. He has a flock of 500 sheep, which he milks twice a day by hand, aided by his son and an additional employee in the busy season. Filippo transforms the milk into tuma, a fresh, still-squeaky cheese, pecorino, an aged cheese, and quivery ricotta, which ends up being used in everything from pasta dough to sauces to desserts. The hot sun shone down on us as we squinted at some of the sheep returning from the pastures while Filippo explained his grueling daily schedule and the methods he uses in his cheese-making. Then we beat a grateful retreat into the cool, dark aging room lined with rounds of ricotta salata and pecorino.


There were pre-dinner walks in the vineyard, a wine tasting up at Regaleali's grand headquarters, writing sessions in the cloth-topped pavilion in the garden, and a collaborative tasting table in which the workshop students sampled herbs and fresh green things from the garden as well as products from Fabrizia's Natura in Tasca line, like the pungent sundried tomato paste I mentioned above, meaty anchovies and fat, salty capers, before talking about the technicalities of food writing. (Like how, exactly, do you describe the rich, savory smell of Greek oregano?) We walked through the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and ate a picnic lunch in the gardens of Colymbetra. Much later that evening, after we'd all said good night and gathered up books for the night's reading, the orange earth from Agrigento left ocher stains on the bathmat after I washed my feet in the bathroom's bidet.


Fabrizia taught us how to make crisp panelle, fritters made with chickpea flour and fried in the dark green Regaleali oil, a spectacular cassata made with sponge cake and homemade almond paste, filled with Filippo's ricotta cream, squid stuffed with breadcrumbs and olives, and homemade cavatelli. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together, like a family, simple soups made with fuzzy, fresh green chickpeas, elegant plates of pasta topped with crisp and savory breadcrumbs, and an enormous and regal tranche of swordfish marinated in fresh herbs and aromatics and cut with a spoon before being served. My favorite part of mealtimes was gathering in the courtyard at dusk, just before dinner, eating some of the kitchen's expert fritte like anchovies and artichokes, with a glass of cold wine beading in my hand.


It was an incredible week, also for us instructors. Inspiring, rejuvenating, interesting and just plain fun. We read and workshopped and talked, about everything: books, families, creativity, heartbreak and, yes, food. It was, at times, a surprisingly emotional week. Intense and close. And when it ended, I found myself wishing that we could all just stay on for a little while longer. Case Vecchie is one of those special, special places. I felt so lucky to have been there and having the privilege of being reminded just how much I love what I do.

Happily, Rachel and I will be teaching the workshop again next June. The plan is all drawn up and we are thrilled to be returning again to a place that feels so much like home. If you are interested in joining us, save the week of June 20-25, 2016 and go here for more information. We are so looking forward to meeting our next group of writers.


And if you're interested in knowing more about Sicily, its history and food traditions, or about the school and Anna, or Fabrizia's story, here are a few book suggestions, all of which are also on the running bibliography I kept for the participants in the class (the links are all affiliate):

Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Atlee

Pomp & Sustenance by Mary Taylor Simeti

Herbs & Wild Greens from the Sicilian Countryside by Anna Tasca Lanza

The Heart of Sicily by Anna Tasca Lanza

Ruth Reichl's Spicy Tuscan Kale


Thrilling the hearts of American immigrants all over Berlin, lacinato kale (also known as Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale) has recently been spotted in grocery stores throughout the city. According to my unscientific polling, we Yankees are also single-handedly responsible for it no longer being available, because we buy up every single bundle of it once spotted. So, yay on the one hand and apologies on the other?

I gleefully bought the three massive bunches for sale at an organic grocer in Mitte last week and then begrudgingly gave one bunch to my mother, who had never even heard of the stuff before. (Behold those famed Italian regional differences in action!) The rest I blanched and then stewed with anchovies, onions, garlic and red pepper flakes, as per Ruth Reichl's brilliant instructions.


Though some people would have you eat kale raw, either massaged into a salad with a Caesar dressing or blended with nut milk and ice into a refreshing and verdant morning beverage, I am not one of those people. I like to eat my dark green leafy vegetables good and cooked, limp and tender. This recipe, which has you first blanch the tough greens and then stew them for another 10 minutes, results in greens that are sweet and tender, savory and delicious, and almost black in color. And after putting them on the plate, you top them with some toasted, crunchy breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, which brightens them right up again.


Even if you think you are not an anchovy-lover, I would urge you to try this recipe as written, because the anchovies are there as a seasoning element, working overtime to give this homely dish of vegetables the kind of deep, funky richness the plant world simply can't provide. The end result doesn't taste remotely fishy. Also, whatever you do, do not skip the crunchy breadcrumb bit. I'm starting to think that every vegetable in the world could use more crunchy breadcrumbs.

The first time I made this, I served it with some boiled pasta (and wished I'd had just a few spoonfuls of ricotta to bind the two together, just so you know). The second time, we ate it piled on toasted, oiled bread. Both times, it was out-of-this-world delicious.


And now for something completely different. For reasons I cannot get into at the moment, I am the current owner of one head of iceberg lettuce. I believe this may be the first time in my 37 years. What do I do with it? Use it as a football? Turn it into mulch for my newly planted balcony? Use it to make some incredible salad that you are dying to tell me about? I'm hoping you go for option 3.

Ruth Reichl's Spicy Tuscan Kale
Serves 3-4
Note: To toast breadcrumbs, heat 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in a small pan and add the breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat, until the breadcrumbs have turned several shades darker and are fragrant and nutty. Do not let them burn. When they are done, immediately scrape them into a serving bowl.

3 bunches lacinato kale, (about 3 pounds), stems and ribs discarded, leaves torn into large pieces and washed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
4 flat filet anchovies in olive oil, preferably jarred variety
3/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
2 medium onions, large dice, (about 2 cups)
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup toasted breadcrumbs (see Note)

1. Bring 4-6 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon of salt to boil in a large pot. Plunge the kale into the water and cook for one minute. The color will become a vibrant green within this time. Remove the kale to a colander under cold running water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.

2. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium-large skillet over medium heat and add the anchovies, pressing and stirring them into the oil until they disintegrate. Add the onions, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and stir over medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes until they become translucent and soft. Add the kale to the onions along with the garlic and the last tablespoon of olive oil. Stir occasionally until everything comes together in a soft mass for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and toss with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese.

Janet Fletcher's Ayran


When I was in high school, the year between junior and senior year, I had a job scooping ice cream at an ice cream shop on old West Berlin's main drag, the Kurfürstendamm. Did you know that Germans eat more ice cream than, well, most people? I scooped - and tasted - a lot of ice cream that summer. So much so that for about a decade afterwards, I couldn't even smell ice cream without feeling slightly nauseous.

This summer, as we race through the final recipe testing before the manuscript for the German baking book is due, is shaping up to be the same kind of summer. The fug of butter and sugar that hangs in the air every other day here - once so cozy and wonderful a scent! - is making me want to run for the hills.

But I cannot run! Baking is my duty! So instead, I cook up green and leafy lunches for Maja, my incredible co-baker, and me on testing days, and I take refuge in cold and salty drinks, which feel like the only thing quenching my thirst right now. I buy sauerkraut juice at my local discount grocery store (no joke - if you're a pickle juice lover, THIS IS EVERYTHING). I am planning a weekly gazpacho production cycle for as long as it stays hot and the oven is on. I'm still heavily into shrubs, inspired by one of my Harper's Bazaar columns from the spring. And then there's ayran: cool, creamy and refreshing ayran.

Janet Fletcher Yogurt

Ayran, a salted and sparkling Turkish yogurt beverage, is available on almost every street corner in Berlin, which boasts the largest Turkish community in the world outside of Turkey. But it's a cinch to make your own ayran at home - you simply mix a few spoonfuls of yogurt with a bit of salt and water (I like sparkling, which has the added benefit of making the drink foamy, but you can use still) and, if you like, a pinch of mint for some added zhuzz. I have really fragrant dried mint that works beautifully in ayran, but right now I'm really loving the very pure, clean flavor of plain ayran.

I got the inspiration for making ayran at home from Janet Fletcher's new book, Yogurt, which was recently published by Ten Speed Press. It's a slim little book packed with easy recipes that I want to subsist on all summer long, like tomato and bulgur soup with yogurt, and grated carrot and cumin salad with yogurt, and Turkish-spiced green beans with, wait for it, yogurt. In fact, I've earmarked almost every page in the chapters on soups, salads, and vegetables.

Oh, and the one for "Lamb Meatballs in Warm Yogurt Sauce with Sizzling Red-Pepper Butter." Because lamb meatballs! In warm yogurt sauce! With sizzling red-pepper butter! I mean, really.

But first, back to baking. Honeyed gingerbread, to be exact. Ayran in hand.

Janet Fletcher's Ayran
Adapted from Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
Serves 1
Note: The author calls for drained or Greek yogurt. I used regular whole-milk yogurt, which is very smooth and creamy here in Germany, and it worked beautifully, but if you can't find such creamy yogurt to start with, you should probably follow Fletcher's recommendation.

1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1/2-3/4 cup still or sparkling water
Salt, to taste
Ice cubes, optional

1. Place the yogurt in a glass. Whisk in just enough water to thin the yogurt to the consistency of buttermilk. A word of caution: if using sparkling water, the foam will rise quite quickly. Whisk in salt to taste. Add ice cubes, if desired. Drink.